There are scores of churches in Lebanon County. They span denominations but all serve God and our community in a unique way.
These churches congregate, and collaborate, and join as brothers and sisters for the betterment of this place we call home. And if linking God and the local community is indeed a generational thing, then Salem Lutheran church is the great great great grandfather of local churches who started it all.
You can trace the origins of Salem Lutheran Church to the founding of Lebanon, or Steitztown. They were born together, they grew up together and they’ve grown old together.
One couldn’t exist without the other.
Jane Straub is the co-chairperson of Salem Lutheran’s archives committee. She’s been attending Salem Lutheran all of her life, and her passion for the church is paralleled only by the love of its deep, rich history.
“My favorite part of it is the feeling of family,” said Straub. “You have your families, your aunts, your uncles, your grandmas and your grandpas. You might not sit together every week, but you’re in church together. Then I have my church family. It’s amazing looking back at the old pictures of your family.
“When you are in need of help, they’re there,” added Straub. “So, it’s about the family who is there to support you through thick and thin. I think that’s what planted the interest in history in me.”
Do enough things, live enough life, then history simply happens.
Located at 119 North Eighth Street in Lebanon, Salem Lutheran is a historic complex of three church buildings, each representing a different century of the city’s faith in God. Old Salem, a limestone structure situated at the corner of Eighth and Willow Streets, was constructed near the end of the 18th century, Schmauk Memorial Chapel — or simply ‘The Chapel’ to its parishioners — is a massive High Victorian Gothic-style building built with brownstone near the end of the 19th century, and the modern Richwine Fellowship Hall was built near the end of the 20th century.
Each addition was built to meet the growing needs of Salem’s expanding congregation.
“Everyone today knows the Schmauk Memorial Chapel as Salem Lutheran church,” said Straub, a 73-year-old resident of Annville. “With the growth of Lebanon, Salem grew. By 1898, the town was growing with things like steel factories, so Salem had to grow too. In 1985, the church started talking about building a parish hall.
“Lebanon and Salem Lutheran grew up together,” Straub added. “It has a distinguished place in the community, with its rich heritage. It has 260 years of Christian witness behind it. It continues to meet the needs of the congregation, the neighborhood, and the city today.”
Today, Salem Lutheran is home to hundreds of parishioners who reside all over Lebanon County. John Casper Stoever was the first of 22 pastors and six associate pastors to lead Salem Lutheran over those years, while Robert Ierien is Salem’s current pastor and Kristal Smith is the church’s visitation pastor.
Before it began live-streaming weekly services due to the COVID-19 crisis, Salem Lutheran conducted Sunday worship in Schmauk Memorial Chapel three times a month and in Old Salem once a month.
“You have everyone, from all walks of life,” said Straub, of Salem’s current congregation.
“City government officials, school board members, doctors, lawyers, a lot of school teachers, some of whom are now retired, bank officials, from throughout the county. It’s a wide range of people.
“What we believe is that you are not saved by works,” continued Straub. “God’s son, Jesus Christ is our savior. The works you do are to thank God. We split from the Roman Catholic Church [in the 1500s]. That’s my synopsis of the Lutheran religion. That’s what I believe.”
Salem Lutheran Church, along with Tabor United Church of Christ, are recognized as the oldest churches in Lebanon. George Steitz founded Lebanon in the 1750s, and deeded the land on which Salem Lutheran now stands as part of his vision for the development of Steitztown.
Salem Lutheran Church was founded in 1760.
“Many people needed a place to worship,” said Straub. “Many citizens needed a church. So, Mr. Steitz thought, ‘I’m going to give them a church.’ The descendants of that first family still worship at Salem. Both Tabor and Salem also provided a place for meetings, because there was no courthouse at that time. It was a German-speaking church, so they held services in German, into the 1930s. They held two services on Sundays, one in the morning and one at night. One would be in English and one would be in German, and they had ministers who could do both.
“Not long after they got the property, members of the church decided to get a bell, so they ordered one from England,” Straub continued. “But then they worried about having a log cabin church with a steeple. But the bell was just used for church services. It was also used for meetings and to notify city residents of trouble and fires. The Perseverance Fire Company was located across the street, and the bell was used for fires. The Perse also had a band, and members of Salem Lutheran were in that band. There’s always been that camaraderie with the community. There’s always been a community feel to that property.”
Salem Lutheran church’s original building was a modest log cabin structure built in 1766. In the late 1790s, Old Salem was constructed at a cost of $12,000. At that time, it was the largest structure between Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
Translated, Salem means ‘the peaceful’.
“In its heyday, Salem Lutheran built the big brownstone church because Old Salem had become too small for Sunday school,” said Straub. “There were 1,000 to 1,500 people attending just Sunday school.
“The development of Lebanon and Salem Lutheran Church share so many things,” added Straub. “The people on the church records lived in Lebanon. They were within walking distance of the church, and that went into the 1900s. Now the congregation is more urban, and they come into the city.”
Over the years, Salem Lutheran Church has kept extensive records about its parishioners and history, a practice started by Paster Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg in the 1770s. In 2010, the National Park Service recognized Salem Lutheran’s architectural and historic significance by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places.
“When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher told my parents that I needed to practice oral reading,” said Straub. “My father told me, ‘I want you to bring home your Pennsylvania history book.’ I would read the book to him because he loved history so much, and we’d have discussions about it. In school, I was fascinated with ancient history.
“I’m overwhelmed by Salem Lutheran’s history,” concluded Straub. “There’s so much I don’t know. I’m always learning something new. I enjoy it, and I’m anxious to share the history.”
Not unlike God, history has so much to teach us.
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